Charter Schools: Backpack Full of Cash

Part 1 of 3 Part Series: Q and A

Backpack Full of Cash is a 90-minute documentary about the negative consequences of the growing privatization of public schools in America. Produced several years ago, the film focuses mainly on the harmful impact of charter schools on public schools and America’s most vulnerable children. The film has been viewed by thousands of people in many different venues, and many continue to organize film screenings in their communities.

Among other things, the film makers have produced a useful 28-page discussion guide which includes questions and answers surrounding privatization and charter schools.

This three-part series tackles a few of these questions in greater detail.

QUESTION: We live in a capitalist country. Why not look to the free market for solutions?

RESPONSE: Labor is the only source of value. Profit equals unpaid labor. Capitalism is a transient economic system designed to maximize profit as fast as possible for major owners of capital. Production under capitalism takes place for the purpose of profitable exchange, not for meeting social needs. If something is not profitable, it will not be produced. And what is not produced, cannot be distributed. This is a very narrow aim for society and the reason why, even though society has an overabundance of wealth and resources, millions go without many basic needs being met. For example, there are thousands of homeless people in the U.S. even though there are thousands of vacant houses.

Far from ensuring that goods and services are produced and distributed in the most “efficient” manner, the capitalist “free market” ensures chaos, anarchy, volatility, and uncertainty. Risk, insecurity, and instability are inherent, not accidental, features of the “free market.” Economic slumps, recessions, booms, busts, depressions, and crises are the fellow-travelers of capitalism. This is how the so-called “invisible hand” operates. The “free market” produces carnage in business and society every day. A dog-eat-dog ethos prevails. Fortunes are made and lost overnight. “Winners” and “losers” abound. Greed, jealousy, rivalry, narcissism, individualism, and “getting ahead of others” are treated as normal, permanent, unavoidable, and healthy. These traits are supposedly part of “human nature,” rather than the direct expression of an impermanent economic system plagued by violent internal contradictions.

Why should collective human responsibilities like education rest on uncertainty, insecurity, instability, and chaos? Why should critical social responsibilities be based on the narrow profit motive? Modern humans need education (and healthcare, food, and shelter) on a reliable, sustainable, crisis-free basis. Subjecting basic needs to the blind destruction of the “free market” is irrational, irresponsible, and historically unwarranted. Schools should not be closing and opening every day, and in such an inhuman dog-eat-dog environment. The needs of students, educators, parents, the economy, and society cannot be met properly when the profit motive and the “law of the jungle” are the main modes of life.

The “free market” works only for a tiny ruling elite, and even then with great risks and insecurity. Education, like food, shelter, clothing, and healthcare are social responsibilities which cannot be treated as commodities. Education is not a business. Nor can it be left to chance. Students, parents, and teachers are not consumers. Their identity, needs, and complexity cannot be reduced to buying and selling, winning and losing. Homo Sapiens are more than Homo Economicus.

The right to education in a modern society based on large-scale production cannot be guaranteed without conscious human planning. Economic “booms and busts” and the devastating ripples they regularly send through society and all of its institutions can be avoided. There is an alternative, one whose seeds lie in the present. It is both possible and necessary to set a new direction for society and the economy and to live in a human-centered way. No human or institution has to be the victim of blind anarchic “market forces” that always seem to perpetuate upheaval and anxiety while always benefitting the privileged few the most.

Shawgi Tell is author of the book Charter School Report Card. He can be reached at Read other articles by Shawgi.